Frances Cuka came to early and sensational attention as Jo, the errant schoolgirl caught on the cusp of adulthood, in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1958 and on Broadway in 1961.
She was an essential part of Joan Littlewood’s provocative company, notably appearing as Young Macduff in the previous year’s Macbeth.
She had been acting from the age of 12 and became a regular on BBC radio’s Children’s Hour. After graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, she was noticed by The Stage for her “scene-stealing 10 minutes” in Colin Morris’ Italian Love Story at Leicester’s Theatre Royal. The same year she appeared in the revue Reprise with Fenella Fielding in Edinburgh and on tour.
At the Royal Court in 1958, she was memorable in John Arden’s Live Like Pigs and as Nell in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, opposite director George Devine’s Hamm. Later successes there included Mary Godwin in Ann Jellicoe’s Shelley (1965) and an exuberant Mrs Allwit in Thomas Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1966).
Joining Peter Hall’s inaugural Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960, she made her mark as Jessica to Peter O’Toole’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and Maria opposite Dorothy Tutin’s Viola in Twelfth Night.
Returning often to the RSC, she was seen alongside Peggy Ashcroft in Marguerite Duras’ Days in the Trees (1966) and a Harold Pinter double-bill in 1968, as Mrs Foran in an admired revival of Seán O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie (1969) and in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (1975), which also took her to Broadway for a second time.
She took multiple roles in Trevor Nunn’s marathon staging of Nicholas Nickleby in the UK and New York in the 1980s.
With Toby Robertson’s Prospect Productions, she was a striking Lucy in The Beggar’s Opera (1968) and Queen Elizabeth to Richard Briers’ Richard III (1972).
Her experience in musicals was sharply contrasted by the failure of Julian Slade’s Vanity Fair (1962), in which she played Becky Sharp alongside Sybil Thorndike at the Queen’s Theatre in London, and the success of Bernard Slade’s Same Time, Next Year with Michael Crawford at the Prince of Wales Theatre, London in 1976.
Later stage appearances included Pinter’s 1985 revival of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth starring Lauren Bacall (Haymarket Theatre, London), Ibsen’s The Wild Duck directed by Peter Hall (Phoenix Theatre, London, 1989) and George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple at London’s National Theatre in 1994.
Jackie Skarvellis’ Carry on Brighton at the Pentameters Theatre in London provided her stage swansong in 2011.
The same year she gained a cult following as Tamsin Greig’s mother in Channel 4’s Friday Night Dinner, staying with the programme until 2018. She had missed wider fame when she was replaced by Jo Warne as Old Vic landlady Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders, a role that was then reassigned to Barbara Windsor, relaunching the latter’s career.
Highlights among Cuka’s 60 screen credits were the 1964 adaptation of Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale, Katherine of Aragon in the star-studded Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1972) and Mrs Bedwin in Roman Polanski’s 2005 film version of Oliver Twist.
She was active throughout her career in Equity and was a longstanding member of its general council.
Frances Cuka was born on August 21, 1936 and died on February 16, aged 83.